The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (3-5, 1-4 C-USA) are looking to regain confidence on Saturday against the UTEP Miners; the Hilltoppers suffered a 59-10 loss to Louisiana Tech just a week ago, and are desperate for a win if they stand any chance at going to a bowl game this season. UTEP (5-3, 3-1 C-USA), coming off a 35-14 win over Southern Miss, will be looking to stay atop the Conference USA standings with a win on Saturday against the Hilltoppers. Here are your Keys to the Game for Western Kentucky:
1.) Stop the Run. The Miners' offense is led by sophomore running back Aaron Jones, who has ran for 8 touchdowns while averaging over five yards per carry this season. Jones and company will be facing a Hilltopper defense giving up over 43 points per game (126th in FBS).
WKU defensive coordinator Nick Holt saw signs of improvement in the second half two weeks ago against in their win against Old Dominion, but cannot be pleased with last week's second half effort where they gave up 21 third quarter points.
2.) Establish the Run. The Hilltopper offense, ranked 2nd in passing with 377 yards per game, also underperformed in their loss to LA Tech, only managing 297 total yards (and five turnovers). The Miner defense is only giving up 30 points per game, so I expect WKU senior quarterback Brandon Doughty to once again struggle to get points on the board.
Hence, head coach Jeff Brohm should rely on the run early on Saturday. I know that's tough to do because flashy football is fun to watch, but he has stars in running backs Leon Allen and Ace Wales, who are both averaging around five yards per carry.
3.) Quarterback Decision-Making. In quarterback Brandon Doughty's first quarter interception last week, he was feeling pressure from LA Tech's defense and made a horrible decision: launching the ball in the remote area of a double-covered receiver. While not giving up on a play is definitely appreciated at times, Doughty needs to learn when to feel the pressure, step out of the pocket, and throw it away.
Doughty has had a great season in part because he hasn't faced much blitzing (until last week); head coach Jeff Brohm will need to find a way to keep Doughty on his feet, whether that's with quick passes or more run plays to set up the play-action (see #2).
4.) Big Plays. This WKU defense is downright awful at times, but it has often survived off big plays this season: the late-game interception touchdown from Juwan Gardner against Old Dominion, and the remarkable play of Wonderful Terry. Although they aren't disciplined, the Hilltoppers can undoubtedly make plays defensively...and they'll have to in order to survive on Saturday (and this season).
Prediction: Doughty and the WKU offense won't be able to get it all together as the Miners play solid, time-consuming football: UTEP 31 WKU 24